Murder Sheet

Murder at Lunchtime: The Mob and Willie Moretti

February 09, 2021 Mystery Sheet Season 1 Episode 13
Murder Sheet
Murder at Lunchtime: The Mob and Willie Moretti
Chapters
Murder Sheet
Murder at Lunchtime: The Mob and Willie Moretti
Feb 09, 2021 Season 1 Episode 13
Mystery Sheet

Willie Moretti showed up at Joe's Elbow Room in Cliffside Park, New Jersey a little before noon on October 4, 1951. He chatted with a group of men in Italian, and then somebody asked the restaurant's waitress to step away to fetch a menu. Within minutes, the longtime Mafia underboss was dead, gunned down on the dining room floor.

But it wasn't Moretti's enemies that had caught up to the gangster after years of wrongdoing. It was the man's close friends. Listen to learn more about why the Mafia silenced one of its most beloved figures. 

Sources for this episode:

  • Ashbury Park Press (Sept. 25, 1988: Robert V. McMenimen)
  • Daily News (Sept. 30, 1986, excerpt from Kitty Kelley's book)
  • The Record (Dec. 21, 1981)
  • The Record (August 31, 1981, Mark A Stuart)
  • The Record (May 11, 1975)
  • The Record (Oct. 10, 1974)
  • The Herald News (August 29, 1974(
  • Ottawa Journal (November 15, 1972)
  • Press and Sun Bulletin (Nov. 19, 1971)
  • Daily News (Sept. 13, 1964)
  • The Record (August 23, 1963)
  • News Journal (Oct. 9, 1963)
  • Courier News (Jan. 7, 1960)
  • Philadelphia Inquirer (Nov. 11, 1952)
  • The Record (Oct. 5, 1951
  • Herald News (Oct. 5, 1951)
  • His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra by Kitty Kelley 

Follow the Murder Sheet on social media for the latest on the Burger Chef murders and future episodes: 

And send tips and thoughts to [email protected] 


Show Notes Transcript

Willie Moretti showed up at Joe's Elbow Room in Cliffside Park, New Jersey a little before noon on October 4, 1951. He chatted with a group of men in Italian, and then somebody asked the restaurant's waitress to step away to fetch a menu. Within minutes, the longtime Mafia underboss was dead, gunned down on the dining room floor.

But it wasn't Moretti's enemies that had caught up to the gangster after years of wrongdoing. It was the man's close friends. Listen to learn more about why the Mafia silenced one of its most beloved figures. 

Sources for this episode:

  • Ashbury Park Press (Sept. 25, 1988: Robert V. McMenimen)
  • Daily News (Sept. 30, 1986, excerpt from Kitty Kelley's book)
  • The Record (Dec. 21, 1981)
  • The Record (August 31, 1981, Mark A Stuart)
  • The Record (May 11, 1975)
  • The Record (Oct. 10, 1974)
  • The Herald News (August 29, 1974(
  • Ottawa Journal (November 15, 1972)
  • Press and Sun Bulletin (Nov. 19, 1971)
  • Daily News (Sept. 13, 1964)
  • The Record (August 23, 1963)
  • News Journal (Oct. 9, 1963)
  • Courier News (Jan. 7, 1960)
  • Philadelphia Inquirer (Nov. 11, 1952)
  • The Record (Oct. 5, 1951
  • Herald News (Oct. 5, 1951)
  • His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra by Kitty Kelley 

Follow the Murder Sheet on social media for the latest on the Burger Chef murders and future episodes: 

And send tips and thoughts to [email protected] 


Áine Cain: Back in late January, we found ourselves skulking around a quiet corner of Cliffside, New Jersey. We were scoping out an Italian restaurant, a classically-influenced structure that seemed to jut into a brown brick building with large windows. Within the restaurant’s plastic-enclosed entrance — a mainstay of eateries during the pandemic — lights glowed warm and orange. Peering through the glass, we could see patrons seated in the elegant dining space. 

We felt a bit awkward sneaking around outside the restaurant at twilight. An irrational thought even came to mind — could the business still have the ties to dangerous, powerful men? And would they appreciate seeing us spying? As we drove off to grab a bite at the nearby Burger King — as the Italian restaurant’s menu was a bit out of our budget — we joked about being followed home. But of course, any anxiety was unjustified. It was just a little restaurant, with a dark history.

Kevin Greenlee: It was easy to imagine what the place looked like, back in the fifties. The chic little restaurant’s long history goes back to 1926. Now it sits across the way from a high end apartment complex. Until 1971 the Palisades Amusement Park stood across the street. Full of roller coasters and fun, the place became one of the most visited amusement parks in the country. And after a day of laughs there, families would often make a quick stop for a bite at what was then called Joe’s Restaurant.

In the mid forties, they added a small cocktail lounge to the main dining room. They called it “Joe’s Elbow Room” and gave it its own dedicated entrance so women and kids wouldn’t have to walk through it on the way to the main restaurant. 

Áine Cain: Willie Moretti went there with some associates on the morning of October 4, 1951 — and he died there.

Kevin Greenlee: Moretti was a man with many enemies. He was a key figure in the mob, was responsible for at least one murder, testified before Congress about his activities, sparked a political scandal in New Jersey, threatened to kill a popular bandleader and that’s just the beginning.

Áine Cain: But it wasn’t his enemies who had Moretti murdered. It was his friends. 

Ominous music plays.

Áine Cain: My name is Áine Cain.

Kevin Greenlee: And I’m Kevin Greenlee.

Áine Cain: And this is the Murder Sheet, a weekly true crime podcast. 

Kevin Greenlee: Áine and I connected over the Burger Chef murders, a 1978 unsolved case involving the killings of four young restaurant employees. 

Áine Cain: Now we’re looking to track restaurant homicides. To help us understand the patterns of these crimes, we created a spreadsheet of nearly 1,000 eatery-related killings: The Murder Sheet. We’ll be drawing on that data throughout season one to give you a deep dive into under-covered crimes. 

Kevin Greenlee: We don’t just rely on skimming the headlines. We dive into these cases to bring you in-depth coverage. 

Áine Cain: We’re the Murder Sheet, and this is “Murder at Lunchtime: The Mob and Willie Moretti.” 

Eerie music plays.

Kevin Greenlee: There are two things you need to know about WIllie Moretti. 

First, he was a powerful figure in the mob. He was, in fact, the director of gambling operations for the national crime syndicate. This made him, by anyone’s standards, a very dangerous man. 

Second, people loved him. He was a man you’d love to have lunch with, he was always quick with a joke or a quip. When, for instance, he testified before a Senate subcommittee, someone asked him how long he’d been in the Mafia.

“What do you mean?" he said, “Like do I have a membership card that says ‘Mafia” on it?”

Comments like that made people crack up — and also had the side benefit of making Moretti seem more like a harmless jokester and less like a harmful crime figure.

Áine Cain: Of course he did more to cultivate affection than just crack wise. He gave large amounts of money to church and sponsored a kids’ baseball team. Unless you really got to know him, you might think he was a decent guy.

We’re going to tell you a lot about Moretti this week — but if you are interested in learning even more about him, then please take a look at our show notes. We’ve included all the sources we used for this episode.

Kevin Greenlee: Willie Moretti was born in Italy in 1894, and immigrated to New Jersey. He didn’t come from money. Willie went to work as a milkman’s helper when he was fifteen, earning a quarter a week. Later he became a pin boy at one of the neighborhood bowling alleys.

Áine Cain: His family had big dreams for him though. Willie was also an altar boy and his father wanted him to become a Catholic priest. But it didn’t work out that way. 

Moretti started a career as a flyweight boxer. He was good enough at it to catch the eye of Dutch Schultz.  Schultz was a major mob figure who made his money bootlegging beer during prohibition. His truckloads of illicit liquor made a tempting target for other gangsters and so he always needed someone along to ride shotgun. This literally meant that someone would sit in the truck with a gun, ready to use it against anyone who tried to steal the alcohol.

Schultz thought this would be a great job for the young boxer. That's how Moretti got his start in the mob. He quickly proved, though, that he could do more than just stand guard over beer. 

Kevin Greenlee: He started doing work for Waxey Gordon, another major bootlegger in the New Jersey area. Gordon had a grudge against Big Bill Brady.

Brady had been handed $8,000 to pay off city officials to give the bootleggers protection. Instead of distributing the bribes, Brady kept the dough for himself. That did not sit well with Gordon. 

On January 16, 1931, Big Bill Brady was confronted outside his home by four men who worked for Gordon. They drew weapons. “I’ll give it back, I’ll give it back,” said Brady, promising to return the eight grand if he was allowed to live. 

“It’s too late,” said one of his attackers. “You can keep it and spend it in hell.”

The four gunmen then shot Brady. Before he died, Brady identified his killers. One of them, he said, was Willie Moretti. 

But there was a problem. 

The United States Constitution gives defendants in criminal trials the right to confront their accusers so they might have an opportunity to challenge their stories. Over the years, though, the courts have created a number of exceptions to this general right so that the words of people who cannot testify might sometimes be offered in court. 

The exception that would apply in this case is called the dying declaration. In essence, it means that if a person knows he is dying and offers a statement about the cause of his death it can be admitted as evidence — because a dying person would have little if any reason to lie.

Unfortunately, the people who took Brady’s statement in this case neglected to ask the man if he knew he was dying. Brady would have had to have gone on the record acknowledging that he knew his life was ending for his statement to qualify as a dying declaration. His last words were therefore not admissible in court. 

Moretti — and the other men Brady identified — were never charged for the murder. 

Áine Cain: After Prohibition ended, the sale of beer once again became legal. This changed Moretti’s world overnight. The business that had enabled him and his fellow bootleggers in the mob to flourish suddenly disappeared. They would have to come up with a new way to make a living. 

Podcast promo.

Áine Cain: Let’s take a quick break from The Murder Sheet to tell you about a podcast investigating yet another unforgettable crime. 

The Orange Tree is a seven-part series about a 2005 homicide that happened near the University of Texas at Austin. The murder of 21-year-old Jennifer Cave, who was shot, dismembered, and left in a bathtub at her friend Colton Pitonyak’s apartment, continues to haunt the area to this day.

Kevin Greenlee: Like the Burger Chef murders, this case features plenty of twists and turns, including Colton’s flight to Mexico with another UT student Laura Hall. Both were later convicted in connection with the crime, although Colton has continued to appeal his verdict and claim innocence. The business student-turned-convicted-murderer now says that he doesn’t remember much about the night Jennifer died. 

Áine Cain: The Orange Tree is reported on and produced by Haley Butler and Tinu Thomas, who were both seniors at the University of Texas when they started the project.

Together, Haley and Tinu strive to piece together this tragic story in an in-depth podcast that features audio from courtroom scenes and interrogation rooms, prison phone calls, and exclusive interviews with both perpetrators and the victim’s family.

You can binge all seven episodes of The Orange Tree today on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. And now, back to the Murder Sheet.

And now, back to the Murder Sheet.

Podcast promo ends.

Áine Cain: So Willie Moretti bought an interest in a gambling joint in East Rutherford, New Jersey. 

The gambling racket in New Jersey at that time was fractious and contentious. Mobsters would frequently intrude into each other’s territory, swiping one another’s profits and kickbacks. Moretti was smart enough to realize that the person who solved that problem would become very powerful. 

So he went to work. He got the gambling community to organize, to stop cutting into one another’s business. It worked so well that Moretti moved beyond the town of East Rutherford and covered all of New Jersey’s Bergen County. 

It soon got to the point that if you wanted to start a gambling operation in Bergen, you needed to go to Willie Moretti with your hat in your hand to get his permission. As long as your proposed joint didn’t threaten the business of an already established operation, Moretti would give his blessing — and that wasn’t all.

He also gave protection; he would make sure your operation wasn’t harassed by the law and that no new businesses would ever come along and compete with you. All you had to do, in return, was give Moretti a flat 50% of all your business. 

Kevin Greenlee: Moretti became very powerful — and very wealthy. He started dabbling in other areas like show business, becoming friends with stars like Jerry Lewis. But the celebrity he was closest to was  undoubtedly Frank Sinatra. 

Moretti was especially close to Sinatra and acted as the godfather of the singer’s career.  Sinatra’s first wife was even a cousin of one of Moretti’s pals. He helped the young man get his start in the music business by getting him booked into clubs in New Jersey. And — allegedly — he did a lot more.

When Sinatra was a young man, he signed a deal with Tommy Dorsey — then one of the most popular bandleaders in the country. Singing with the Dorsey group increased Sinatra’s visibility, made people realize what a talent he was. He started getting other offers, opportunities he could only take advantage of if he left Dorsey and struck out on his own.

Sinatra wanted to do it, but the contract he signed with the bandleader was ironclad. If he left Dorsey before it ran out, the singer would have to pay Dorsey 43% of his earnings for the rest of his career. 

That would have cost Sinatra millions. He and his attorneys tried to negotiate with Dorsey, to get him to compromise. But the bandleader would not budge — and why would he? Sinatra was on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the country — why would Dorsey give up a piece of him?

Finally, Sinatra asked Willie Moretti for help. 

What happened next was a scene straight out of the Godfather. In fact many people believe that the sequence in the novel and film in which the Italian-American singer Johnny Fontaine relies on the mob to help him out of an unfavorable contract with a bandleader is based on what happened next. 

Moretti paid a call on Tommy Dorsey and stuck a gun down the bandleader’s throat and asked him to release Sinatra from the contract. Dorsey did so, tearing up his agreement with the singer in exchange for one dollar. 

At least that is what some people claim. Sinatra always denied it, saying that his lawyers simply worked out a deal Dorsey couldn’t refuse. 

In any case, Moretti also felt comfortable intervening in more personal areas of the performer’s life. At one point, for instance, the tabloid newspapers were full of stories about how Sinatra was cheating on his wife with Ava Gardner. Moretti fired off a telegram to the singer.  

“I am very much surprised what I have been reading in the newspapers between you and your darling wife. Remember you have a decent wife and children. You should be very happy.”

Despite Moretti’s advice, Sinatra still ended up divorcing his wife and marrying Gardner.  One could argue he should have listened to Moretti — Gardner cheated on him and he continued seeing his first wife on the side. 

Áine Cain: Meanwhile, of course, Moretti kept up his primary line of work — which included buying off politicians for favors. In early 1950, he paid a visit to John J. Dickerson, the powerful leader of the Bergen County Republican machine. He even served as the mayor of Palisades Park from 1939 to 1952. 

Moretti’s visit was not a social call. He was upset. He told Dickerson that he had been paying $12,000 a month to Harold Adonis, the governor’s executive clerk. According to Moretti, $10,000 of that sum this went straight to the governor himself. 

Moretti wasn’t giving this money to the Republicans out of a sincere belief in the party’s platform of fiscal responsibility. He told Dickerson that the mob was supposed to be getting protection in exchange for this financial windfall. According to Moretti, the Republicans weren’t living up to their end of the bargain. Moretti said he wasn’t going to take it lying down.

Moretti’s revelations to Dickerson sparked a scandal. Adonis ended up getting indicted on charges of receiving funds to bribe and entice public officials to neglect to use public means to suppress gambling. 

Kevin Greenlee: Moretti, meanwhile, was called to testify before a Senate subcommittee investigating organized crime. He seemed to enjoy matching wits and sparring with the Senators. For instance, he readily admitted that gambling at the race track was a racket, but — in a rhetorical bid that certainly resonates in 2021 — he insisted that the stock market was a racket as well. 

Upon being reminded that the stock market was legal, Moretti suggested that the race track gambling could be legalized as well, and controlled by the government. His recommendations proved prescient. Off track betting did indeed become legal a couple of decades later. 

But that was too late for Moretti.   

Áine Cain: By the end of 1950, he was sick, showing the early signs of paresis, a kind of progressive dementia that often occurs in the late stages of syphilis. Life reported that the gangster had been a family man, a grandfather who babysat for his three daughters' kids, and who remained "devoted to his wife, Angelina." But at some point, Moretti had allegedly picked up the virulent sexually-transmitted disease. At first, the paresis wasn’t too bad. But Moretti started to have periods where he would start indiscreetly prattling on and on about some of the dark secrets he had been keeping for years.   

When he got into one of those states, his associates were careful to keep him away from reporters and lawmen. Maybe they could have kept doing that indefinitely, but the mobsters knew things would only get worse. 

Kevin Greenlee: Moretti was not the first notorious gangster to contract paresis — the condition had also struck Al Capone. By the time Capone died, it had sapped his intelligence and left him with the mentality of a child. That seemed to be the same fate that lay in store for Moretti, who reportedly idolized Capone. 

Áine Cain: And as his dementia grew worse and worse, maybe the man who liked to talk would say too much to the wrong person and endanger the interests of his friends.  This was a real threat, and the mobsters started talking about it. 

Kevin Greenlee: Mafia leader Vito Genovese, for instance, flatly said that, while it was a shame that Moretti was sick, it was just not right to protect him. “If tomorrow I go wrong,” he said, “I would want to be hit so as not to bring harm to this thing of ours.” Cosa Nostra — the name frequently used to refer to the Sicilian Mafia, translates to "our thing" or "this thing of ours." Moretti’s declining health was looking like it might prove contagious to the rest of the mob.

Áine Cain: Eventually the other members of the commission of family bosses came around to Genovese’s way of thinking — and they put a hit out on their friend. 

Kevin Greenlee: But even then they had their doubts. Lucky Luciano, who is considered the father of modern organized crime in the United States, intervened twice to have the contract on Moretti delayed. He wanted to be sure Moretti’s doctors had truly done all they could for his friend. He wanted to ensure that Moretti had been given every chance to recover before the mob took his life. Only when it became clear to one and all that the disease was irreversible, did Luciano allow them to proceed with the hit. 

The mobsters told themselves they were doing Moretti one last favor, that it was a mercy killing. 

Áine Cain: Around 11:28 a.m. on October 4, 1951, Willie Moretti — who was then 57 — walked into Joe’s Elbow Room. Four men were waiting for him. One of the four left shortly thereafter, but the other three remained, laughing and joking with Moretti in Italian. One of them asked the waitress to go into the kitchen to fetch a menu. 

While she was gone, she heard shots. When she returned, the three men were gone but Moretti remained. He lay on the floor, bleeding, dying of multiple gunshot wounds. No one was ever convicted of Moretti’s murder. Early media reports speculated — incorrectly — that the mob had snuffed him out over his testimony before Congress. 

Kevin Greenlee: The local paper wrote about his passing as if he were a great civic leader. They talked about how he gave money to local charities, how he helped area businessmen get their start. Many of the acknowledgments of his actual line of work were at best implicit, as if how he actually earned his money was somehow immaterial. 

“Whatever his business was,” noted the Hackensack Record, “He was a family man and nothing made him happier than giving those he loved the best.”

And — to show that they genuinely loved Moretti — the mob threw him a funeral for the ages. 

Lying in a casket that would have cost over $50,000 in 2021, Moretti wore a tuxedo that would sell for over $2,000 now and shoes that would run over $750 . Ten carloads full of flowers were trucked out to the cemetery and the service attracted an overflow crowd of 10,000 people.

 Áine Cain: There’s nothing new or profound about suggesting that someone with traits like style, wit, and generosity can galvanize good will despite their monstrous behavior — or even because of it. 

In the case of mobsters, the reasons why are somewhat understandable. Moretti was a member of the American Mafia, an organized crime group made up of mostly Italian-Americans. Anti-Italianism was a major political force in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, a bigoted backlash against Italian immigrants to the United States like Moretti, based on ethnocentrism and religious animosity toward Roman Catholics. Other groups that faced discrimination also reacted by forming their own, illicit power structures, including Irish-Americans in Boston and Jewish immigrants in New York City. For some members of the Italian-American community — who faced decades of violence, prejudice, and discrimination — seeing a man like Moretti succeed by thumbing his nose at the rules may have been thrilling, even inspiring. But of course that sort of feeling — however justified — can lead to the elevation of evil. Moretti was likely a murderer. Moretti destroyed lives. The corruption that Moretti and men like him spread is corrosive. It’s an evil that resembles a painless disease eating away at a patient’s mind and body. 

And in the end, Moretti himself fell victim to the same impulse to excuse monstrous behavior. His friends probably told themselves they weren’t bad, just because they gunned their buddy down. But the old man was sick, after all. And they’d made him comfortable. He wasn’t scared, pleading for his life in the plastic-lined trunk of a car or the basement of an abandoned house. He was visiting one of his favorite watering holes, enjoying a conversation in his native tongue in the shadow of an amusement park. They killed him before he could finish laughing, and then they adorned his casket with flowers.

Kevin Greenlee:  Thanks for listening to this episode of the Murder Sheet. Special thanks to Kevin Tyler Greenlee, who composed the music for the Murder Sheet, and who you can find on the web at kevintg.com.  

Áine Cain: To keep up with the latest on the Murder Sheet, please make sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter @murdersheet and on Facebook @msheetpodcast or by searching Murder Sheet. For exclusive content like bonus episodes and case files, become a patron of the Murder Sheet on Patreon.

If you enjoyed listening to the Murder Sheet, please leave us a five star review to help us gain more exposure. And send tips, suggestions, and feedback to [email protected] Thanks so much for listening.